Cloning conundrums

Who gets the money if Bill Gates decides to reproduce himself?

Published May 3, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Lori Andrews has a strange view of the future. In fact, it's downright Orwellian. The bioethicist/attorney foresees masses of people cloning themselves, their dead children, their favorite athletes; parents lining up to special-order their children; new laws prohibiting new crimes, such as pulling hairs from someone to get their DNA. And yet, this science fiction-like future isn't that far away -- only a few years, she says. And with 20 years of studying reproductive technology, her vision might be dead on.

Besides advising Congress and the World Health Organization on the ethical and legal implications of the latest reproductive technology, she has also been called to consult on some real freakish cases. "I was beginning to feel more and more like the Harvey Keitel character in 'Pulp Fiction' -- you know, scientists do some incredibly bizarre new thing and I'm the lawyer called in to clean up," she says. What Andrews says we need, instead of legal advice after the fact, is an open dialogue to define our collective societal values. Science has been forging ahead at such an incredible speed that the law hasn't had a chance to catch up yet.

That's part of the reason she wrote "The Clone Age: Adventures in the New World of Reproductive Technology," a new book that examines the history and impact of reproductive technology. She wants to get people talking. So Salon Health and Body turned the tables on Andrews, who is the director of the Institute for Science, Law and Technology and professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, and got her talking about some of the cases she's worked on, and how she's seeing double, triple and quadruple in the years to come.

What's the most absurd case that you've ever been called on?

The most absurd was being called about the rights of the severed head, where a person wanted a doctor to keep his head after he died, in case the technology got developed to reattach it. I told them that the head itself had no rights, that some of the person's relatives had rights to make decisions and if they reattached it there was no precedent to determine if it would legally be considered the same person. To this day, the head is still being frozen, while it waits for the technology to reattach it.

But there are other things going on that I consider beyond the pale. For example, Baylor University applied for a patent in Europe on a technique that allows you to genetically engineer cows to produce medicine in their breast milk. In their patent, they also wanted rights to patent human women who have been genetically engineered to produce the drugs in their breast milk. So that just shows how we're not only thinking of children as products, but sort of people as products. Just this past weekend, another lawyer was called in to a situation where a man wanted to hire a surrogate, give her fertility drugs, have triplets, choose the best child of the three and then give the others up for adoption.

Recently there was a case of a woman getting pregnant from her dead husband's sperm. Is this becoming common practice?

Yes. The American Society of Reproductive Medicine actually has a protocol about it now, and clinics in a number of states have gotten requests from women to collect sperm after their husbands have died, or while their husbands are in a coma. You can collect sperm from comatose men in the same way it is collected from paraplegic men -- through a technique called electroejaculation. In one French case, the man froze sperm in the course of his cancer treatment. His wife was able to use it to give birth and sent out birth invitations that the child had been born to Kim and by Roberto (posthumously). In a California case, the man had actually drawn up a will, given the sperm to his girlfriend, picked a name for the child, wrote a letter to the child, frozen all these sperm samples and then committed suicide. His children by his former marriage sued to stop the girlfriend from getting pregnant and so there was a whole question whether the sperm should be considered part of the estate, and if so, since the girlfriend was entitled to 20 percent of the estate, could she get 20 percent of the sperm? The appellate courts ultimately gave the sperm to the girlfriend and last I checked with her lawyer, she was trying to get pregnant using it.

How about cloning -- is this really going to happen?

Robert Edwards, an embryologist at Cambridge who was responsible for the first test-tube baby, has said that half of the in vitro clinics in the United States have the capacity to do human cloning. It's really the moral barrier that is stopping it. The National Bioethics Advisory Commission was trying to get a five-year
moratorium but only four states -- Michigan, Missouri, Rhode Island and California -- have banned cloning. Already there are some companies that are being set up to offer human cloning, but it will probably take a long time to perfect. However, since I see all these other infertility treatments being introduced before they are tested sufficiently, I think we will see people using human cloning in the next few years.

Are there going to be lots of mistakes -- meaning deformed children who are basically science experiments?

Ian Wilmut, who was responsible for Dolly the sheep, has said that one quarter of his sheep have had growth defects, some of which caused their death shortly after birth, and that it's totally irresponsible to try that with humans. Also, the Grenada Corp., which is in Texas, was cloning cows from embryonic cells and they found that 18 to 20 percent died after birth.

Do you think that there is some place in the world where they are getting close?

I think it's being tried elsewhere. I find that in addition to physicians wanting to help infertile couples, there is an awesome power with being able to create life and that is very appealing and dramatic to people, even beyond the money. Some scientists in South Korea announced that they had cloned a human embryo but didn't allow it go any further. While a number of countries have signed on to an international ban, South Korea hasn't and the United States hasn't either.

If a person is cloned, would he or she have the same psychological components?

There is some evidence that certain behavioral traits are likely to be inherited, and perhaps some psychological dimensions. But I think people have the wrong idea. Part of the problem with cloning is that there is so much in our experience that makes a difference. I'm in Chicago and here everyone wants to clone Michael Jordan, but the kind of experience that he had, like not being able to play on the team earlier in high school, is unlikely to happen to his clone. Pity the 10-year-old clone of Michael Jordan who breaks his knee -- he might think he's worthless and so might his parents, especially since people are paying big money for "smart sperm."

I'm also troubled by the fact that if we clone Michael Jordan, if the original Michael Jordan dies early, in middle age, of an inheritable cancer, his clone as a young child would become uninsurable. Once we learn genetic information about the original, we might discriminate against the clone in employment, insurance and education. My main concern is that it will create what one lawyer has called a "genetic bondage." If you clone a dead child you would expect -- which is the only reason you're doing it instead of having another one -- to re-create the first one. What if you clone a famous musician and the child wants to do horseback riding or baseball. In normal life, a parent would give up if the child wasn't really interested or seems to be tone deaf, but if you have chosen or bought the genetic material from someone with a particular trait, I think there will be a lot of pressure for the child to follow in the famous progenitor's footsteps.

In your book, it says that legally there is nothing to stop another person from cloning you, and that they can do it from something as seemingly harmless as a hair.

You can get DNA from a hair follicle, they do it for forensic testing. And you could clone someone from it. Part of the reason that we're poorly protected is that there is a decision in the California Supreme Court in which a doctor patented a cell line made out of the patient's material (cells) and the court said the patient has no property rights in his cells, but that the doctor can have property rights. I think now that we can clone, now that we can do all these things with people's genetic materials outside their bodies, I think we need more rules about control.

And also, it's a huge mess when it comes to inheritance law and family law. Who is the legal parent if a wealthy individual like Bill Gates clones himself? Traditional paternity testing would suggest that his parents should be the legal parents since he's created a brother, a twin. And yet the egg donor in the cloning situation (there is a tiny bit of DNA that's still in the egg) might have rights. And in several states, if the clone were just gestated by a surrogate, the child is the legal offspring of the surrogate and her husband.

Do you think there should be some international body convened right now before all of this goes any further?

I think it would be a terrific idea to look at it at the international level. We've seen that once Australia clamped down on what you could do with in vitro, people went to Singapore. When Dr. Richard Seed, a veterinarian, was proposing human cloning and was going to do it in Illinois, the legislature made noises like it was going to ban it, and he said he would do it in Mexico. This is a much more difficult industry to regulate than the nuclear power industry because it doesn't take that much equipment and it isn't that expensive. In cloning, you take a cell from any part of the body, like the skin or the cheek or a hair follicle, and you take the DNA out of that cell. Then you put it in an egg from which the DNA has been removed. They make the embryo out of the skin cells, the egg is only there as a kind of incubator, and no sperm is used.

In your book you mention a lot about all these human embryos that are frozen and abandoned. Is this becoming a huge problem?

There are maybe 15,000 women who get pregnant each year through in vitro fertilization, but there are another 20,000 that are frozen each year. So there are a lot of questions about these "souls on ice," which currently number 150,000. For example, who gets custody in a divorce? There have already been cases about the husband not wanting the ex-wife to use the embryos, but she's gone through all the expense and physical risk of undergoing in vitro and she still wants to have a child. We have a whole set of questions about whether or not the embryos should be considered people, property or just medical waste. In one case I was involved in, a couple had an embryo frozen in a Virginia clinic and then they moved to Los Angeles and wanted to have the embryo implanted there. The clinic didn't want to give it to them. The couple said it was similar to giving your car to a parking garage and getting it back, which they ultimately did.

And now other states have taken the approach that in vitro embryos should be considered more like people. Louisiana has a law saying embryos are juridical or persons and cannot be terminated. And so if a couple has twins or triplets on their first attempt and doesn't want to use the rest of their frozen embryos, apparently the state government can swoop in and give them to other couples . And yet, the original parents might worry, is the child lonely, sad, mistreated?

There are also problems down that route. Since in vitro fertilization in general only has a 25 percent success rate, if you consider the embryo a person, doctors might be accused of homicide for the other 75 percent of embryos; or women might not be allowed to abort if we start thinking of embryos as people. The U.K., on the other hand, says after five years, if the couples haven't used it or claimed it, [the embryo] must be destroyed.

What is the big question that we should be asking ourselves as we march down this scientific path?

The big question is: What kind of society do we want to be in? Do we want to be in one where everything is for sale, including genetic traits, do we want to have low tolerance for any departure from some standard ideal?

It's such a new technology that we don't know how it's going to happen. It took two generations to figure out the risk of DES [the drug given to women during pregnancy, which caused problems in their offspring]. I would like to see, at the very least, some follow-up data across the board on how these children and women are faring because they're being given high doses of hormones and these fertility drugs. There was some indication that they were at increased risk for ovarian cancer, but we still need more studies.

Do you think that these doctors who are working in the reproductive field are playing God?

Yes, I do think that they are creating life. And so there are responsibilities that go along with it. I think they would respond by saying medicine in general plays God -- even giving insulin to a diabetic, or glasses to someone who is near-sighted, makes a change of nature -- but I think that one thing that is happening is the changes are so great and so fundamental that society might not be in agreement with them. We might feel kindly toward glasses but we might not feel kindly toward aborting a child with a minor disability. It shouldn't be up to individual doctors to decide if they want to clone or not, or decide whether they want to take sperm from a dead man or what the age cutoff is for in vitro (some physicians don't provide the egg donations to women past menopause, others do). If we're going to make fundamental changes around the creation of life, we need a wider social discussion about it. That was in part what I was hoping to do with this book.

By Dawn MacKeen

Dawn MacKeen is a former senior writer for Salon, and author of a forthcoming book about her grandfather’s survival of the Armenian Genocide, "The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2016).

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